Recently, there have been louder and louder calls for paid sick leave to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. These calls are coming from not only the typical representatives of workers’ issues like the NDP, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and public health authorities, but even conservative Toronto mayor John Tory.
On Feb. 16, the Ontario NDP attempted to push a bill called the “Stay At Home If You’re Sick Act” to provide Ontario workers with seven paid sick days and three additional unpaid days. Part of the bill also sets up a provincial fund to help cover the costs businesses would incur if and when workers use their emergency days.
This situation is not unique to Ontario, as no province in the country has paid sick leave provisions. The only program that exists for workers is a federal program called the “Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit” (CRSB), which pays up to $500 a week for two weeks should one fall ill and successfully jump through all the bureaucratic application hoops. This measly sum represents more of a PR stunt than actual aid, as it will do little for the worker who must choose between going to work sick or receiving what amounts to less than minimum wage in most provinces.
To add further insult to injury the ONDP’s proposal, as well as the CRSB itself, use public money to front the bill that corporations should be paying out of their own pockets. We can be under no illusion, especially in light of how the debt from the 2008 financial crisis was handled, that this government spending will not be used to justify vicious austerity later to social services such as health care and education. This effectively puts the tab for bailing out these businesses on workers and youth. The fact that more than 60 per cent of workers in Canada are not provided with paid sick days—something that even skilled workers in ancient Egypt had—is a damning condemnation of the capitalist system we live under: a system that requires its workforce to feel expendable and live in constant precarity in order to keep wages low and demands quiet.
In our view, paid sick days represent the very least that is needed in order to overcome the undue hardship placed upon working people and families. More and more workers have to contend with unemployment, underemployment, housing insecurity, and rising costs of food—all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the bourgeois mishandling of it.
The pandemic is still having life-threatening consequences on so many fronts for workers. Front-line workers in some workplaces still have issues accessing quality personal protective equipment. In some provinces like Alberta, health-care funding is being cut via unilateral wage increase deferrals. Workplace-wide outbreaks across the country are still a common news item. Ministries of labour across the country are not lifting a finger for workers who are calling to invoke their right to refuse unsafe work. Workers young and old are needlessly dying. This means that paid sick days are but one of the many provisions we need in place in order to survive the pandemic.
This begs an examination of the current tactics of the workers’ movement and how they can be improved. In the face of this callous life-threatening madness, the general tactic of the CLC and other prominent trade union federations has been at best to try and propose “reason” and “evidence-based policy” to governments. At worst they bury their heads in the sand and say nothing at all in the face of workplace outbreaks.
By relying on non-confrontational tactics such as lobbying, phone drives, or moving bills in legislatures that are dominated by the parties of big business, the current leaders of working class organizations are trying to bring reason into a system that has lost all reason to exist.
What we need is a return to the elementary but militant methods that brought us the grand majority of all social welfare provisions workers rely on today such as vacation pay, the weekend, universal health care, etc.
The parliamentary actions of the NDP have not been enough to get the movement necessary to save the lives of essential workers. There has been total intransigence of the bosses and their representatives in the provincial and federal legislatures in Canada.
The labour movement needs to take a confrontational stance with big business as well as provincial and federal governments. Workers are seething at how the crisis is being handled, and polls continually show support for an end to the stop-start lockdown cycles which only seem to make matters worse.
Concretely, we need to understand that such actions cannot be built by a click of the fingers, but at the same time we also need to understand that nothing will change until we escalate the struggle. The natural first site of the organized fightback must be the shop floor. There have been repeated examples of unsafe work refusals by groups of workers. But instead of supporting and encouraging such actions, union leaders have typically tried to get these workers back into (unsafe) work. Instead of suppressing the anger of the workers, the leadership of organized labour must give a coherent expression to this anger. These rank-and-file workers, endangered by management, should not be isolated and forced to take measures into their own hands. Instead the labour movement must give them full backing and assistance.
A series of escalating work actions is what is necessary. The labour movement needs to show that it will not be inactive while workers are being killed to maintain profits. Workplace protests, slow-downs, lunch-time walkouts, and encouragement for unsafe work refusals are all tools at the disposal of labour. They should and must be used to back up demands for sick days and worker control over health and safety during the pandemic.
The use of these tactics will serve to embolden workers while simultaneously escalating the pressure felt by the ruling class that is currently only being delivered via phone calls and parliamentary speeches.
Doug Ford and his capitalist ilk across the country have demonstrated that they are not interested in providing paid sick days and other necessary provisions when politely asked over the phone or when presented in the legislature. It’s about time we stop being polite and show them how serious we are. It’s time to force them to give us sick leave and everything else workers need to be safe. It is time to act.